Having been asked by the Revd Mr Johnson to jot down a few notes about my upbringing and the manner of my arrival in the colony, I will attempt to do so, but I should say at the outset that I have little of interest to relate. I have not contributed much of worth to the world, as will no doubt become obvious in the pages that follow, and indeed I sometimes wonder that I even survived the trials and tribulations of my earliest years.
So begins the story of Barnaby Fletch, a young convict recounting the tale of his childhood and early years in the colony of New South Wales. As would be expected, his protestations belie the absorbing story which follows. Fletch has been on his own on the streets of London for as along as he can rememberer, with no knowledge of his family. He relies on what he finds, or can steal, and shelters wherever he can, although his favourite place is within the walls of St Martin’s church.
A chance encounter with a returned convict makes Barnaby wonder whether transportation to the strange new land of which the stranger tells might provide an opportunity for a better life, so he decides to do what he can to get himself caught and transported. Eventually, though not without some difficulty, he finds himself bound for Botany Bay, and whatever that may hold.
South of Darkness is John Marsden’s first foray into writing for adults, though young adults readers may also enjoy this tale of hardship, survival and adventure set against the backdrop of colonial Australia and England and with a distinctly Dickensian feel. Fletch is an endearing narrator – surprisingly literate for his lack of formal education – and, while he does not give his age as narrator, the events of his childhood are told largely through the lens of childhood naivety, leaving readers to interpret and react.
There is the hint of a sequel in the final lines, and it is to be hoped that it will come, because readers are left wanting to know what is next in store for young Barnaby.
South of Darkness, by John Marsden
Pan Macmillan, 2014
Available from good bookstores and online.